The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic opened its 2017-18 season Saturday at Columbus East High School’s Clarence Robbins auditorium with its “I Love a Piano” concert.
Judging by the response of the packed auditorium, most of the audience would have renamed the event “We Love Tony DeSare.” The star of the evening’s Johnson Guest Artist Program, DeSare captured the rapt attention of the audience with his dry, comedic banter, his smooth vocal style, his virtuosity and exciting piano technique.
Maestro David Bowden began the program with “Evolution of the Piano Overture,” incorporating melodies by Bach, Mozart and many other traditional concert composers moving effortlessly to the entrance of DeSare onstage as he began the Irving Berlin classic, “I Love a Piano.”
Showcasing both his vocal and piano skills, DeSare flawlessly combined the musical style of boogie woogie with the title tune and other pieces by Berlin and his contemporary, George Gershwin. Although the piano lost some of its acoustical sweetness in amplification allowing it to be heard over the orchestra, the cleverness of DeSare’s arrangement overshadowed any technical matters.
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Following a few brief introductory comments, DeSare displayed a remarkable flair for changing his vocal style in “Faithfully,” a popular song by Journey, which tells the story of how a performer deals with being absent from his family while on the road. In his “Musically Speaking” interview before the concert, DeSare shared his own story about leaving his four-year-old for this concert and how that helped him in his interpretation of this song.
Strongly supported by the outstanding performance of the Philharmonic string section, DeSare’s performance was especially touching. The next selection, an original song, “New Orleans Tango,” gave DeSare a wonderful opportunity to display his fine piano skills and featured the brass section of the orchestra, which played brilliantly except for a couple of moments when their volume overpowered DeSare’s.
This was followed with songs by Ray Charles, which allowed the audience to meet Ed Decker, playing the seven-string guitar in a featured moment. The full orchestra then joined in, playing with such a great feel for the style of the music that several members of the audience cheered.
Building on this momentum, DeSare then played a crowd favorite, Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman,” featuring a great collaboration with Bowden. Their musical interplay gave the number great energy and a precision that brought great excitement to the audience. Bringing the first act to a quick conclusion were the Johnny Mercer tune, “Something’s Got to Give,” and Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” with outstanding piano work by DeSare.
Although DeSare’s vocal delivery of the song was not as raucous as some rock singers, the combination of his piano virtuosity and the strong playing of the Philharmonic brought the necessary energy to bring the first act to a fine finish.
The second half of the concert featured several of the most popular ballads of the 20th century from a variety of musical idioms: “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Day In, Day Out” by Johnny Mercer, “Kiss” by Prince and “How Deep is Your Love” by the Bee Gees, the last set as a bossa nova.
All displayed the laid-back, crooner style of DeSare while highlighting his never-forced-but-impeccable diction. He followed these with an original composition, “How I Will Say I Love You,” that he had sung for rock legend Paul McCartney.
The orchestra was beautifully featured in this number, with the timing between Bowden and DeSare proving to be outstanding. With limited rehearsal time, this feat of togetherness is a tribute to the collegial attitude that Bowden brings to his work with the many guest artists he has shared with the Philharmonic and Columbus.
Returning to his classical training, DeSare performed “Sabre Dance Boogie,” based on the concert piece by Aram Khachaturian set to a boogie beat, which was a big hit with the audience. Then he, guitarist Ed Decker and concertmaster Henry Allison joined forces to perform the song “Angel Eyes” to the absolute silence of an audience completely mesmerized by the beauty of their musicianship. This song will be included on an album by Decker and DeSare to be released later this year.
The finale of the concert for this big band crooner was the Frank Sinatra classic, “My Way.” In a truly Hollywood fashion and style, the orchestra brilliantly soared while supporting DeSare as he sang this audience favorite. As the audience quickly rose to its feet, DeSare launched into his first encore, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” and then his second encore, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” delighting the audience with his over-the-top performance, which included using his foot to play the piano and playing the boogie woogie at break-neck speed.
As the crowd rose once more, it was apparent that the audience loved Tony DeSare and the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.
J. Kevin Butler is a graduate of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a high school choral director for more than 20 years. He is currently director of music for the First United Methodist Church of Columbus.